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Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Smith (1890-1977)

December 2014 | by Ian Dobbie

It was Lord Hardinge who said of General Havelock, the devoted Christian officer who was to become famous for his part in the relief of Lucknow, that he was ‘every inch a Christian and every inch a soldier’. This description would be equally appropriate of Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Smith KCB, KBE, DSO, MC, LLD, who died on 8 August 1977, leaving behind him an inspiring and abiding influence, both as an officer and as a Christian.

Arthur Francis Smith was born on 9 December 1890. His ancestors had been bankers in Nottingham, but his father, Colonel Granville Smith, served with distinction in the Coldstream Guards and brought his family up in Derbyshire.

Loving home

This was a loving, Christian home and Arthur Smith could never recall a day when he did not trust Christ, and Christ alone, for salvation. He was always grateful for this and, when in his later years he was asked publicly what was the best age to start presenting Christian truth to children, it is not surprising that he recommended parents ‘to start at the age of nought!’

      His boyhood was a happy and successful one. He had a quick, clear mind and was gifted physically. He won the school quarter-mile and half-mile events at athletics, rowed for the Eton 1st VIII and was a gifted horseman.

      He took naturally to soldiering and was commissioned from Sandhurst into his father’s regiment in 1910, after being awarded the Sword of Honour. From his earliest years, it was evident that his parents’ prayers had been answered and that God’s sovereign hand directed his young life.

      The beginning of Arthur Smith’s commissioned service was spent in England and Egypt. Besides maintaining his sporting interests, he ran Bible studies for his soldiers and his soldierly acumen was so obvious that, early in World War One, he became Adjutant of the 3rd Battalion, the Coldstream Guards.

      It is said that, although he spent the latter part of the war on the staff, his heart was really in the trenches. He was mentioned in dispatches five times and was awarded the DSO, MC and French Croix de Guerre. (He confided to his family that he dreaded attending the investiture for the foreign decoration, as he would have to tolerate being kissed by a Frenchman on both cheeks!)

Protection

This war not only brought Arthur Smith honours and awards; it brought him wounds also. No less than three times he had to be carried out of action. At the outbreak of war, his father gave him a small Bible.

      Written on the flyleaf were these verses from Psalm 91: ‘For you have made the Lord … your dwelling place. No evil will befall you … For he will give his angels charge concerning you, to guard you in all your ways’.

      His father recommended that Arthur Smith always carry the Bible in his pocket, as he himself had done whilst serving in the South African War. Taking this practical advice to heart, Arthur Smith had a pocket tailored into his trousers for this very purpose! Two experiences illustrated the absolute truth of this Scripture to him.

      In November 1914, whilst Smith was reconnoitering a route in the middle of the night, a German shell burst very close, quickly followed by another that caught him on the hip and hurled him across the road.

      As he lay wounded at the dressing station en route to hospital, he wondered why it was that a shell, that could hurl him across a road, had not done more damage. When he pulled out his Bible, he discovered that it had caught the main force of the shrapnel and had diverted it from its course. Instead of being wounded very seriously, he had only received a flesh wound.

      It was only when he finally reached a hospital that he discovered that the shrapnel had cut through his Bible, as far as, and had stopped exactly at, Psalm 91, the psalm of his father’s choosing.

Severe wound

In August 1917, whilst on the staff of XIV Corps, Arthur Smith and two other staff officers were sent to Langemarck to carry out a reconnaissance. Approaching the trenches furthest forward, they were caught in a German artillery bombardment.

      There was a terrific bang, something seemed to kick his leg, and he found himself knocked to the ground by the explosion. As his companions picked themselves up, Arthur Smith found himself unable to do so.

      Looking down at his leg, he saw his foot swinging about, seemingly attached by little more than his puttee, with quite a respectable portion of his leg missing completely.

      At the dressing station, aptly named Mendingem, Arthur Smith’s final instruction to the surgeon was, ‘Don’t take that foot off, doctor; give it a chance’.

      On waking from the anaesthetic, he was relieved to find he was still in possession of his left foot! A couple of days later at the General Hospital at Rouen, the surgeon examined him and said, ‘I can leave your foot on, on chance; but you may get blood-poisoning with fatal results: or I can amputate and you will get on all right. Let me know tomorrow morning what you feel about it’.

      This ultimatum did not disturb Arthur Smith, as he thought on the words of the Bible, ‘And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose’.

      Later that day he took his Daily Light, a book of Bible verses for each day of the year, and opened it to that day’s reading (19 October). He was staggered when the first words he read were, ‘The Lord shall be thy confidence, and shall keep thy foot from being taken’.

      That was sufficient encouragement and, thanking God, he closed the book. He kept his foot, was passed as fully fit in 1925, and in his own words ‘wobbled my way in the Army, till I retired in 1948’.

Marriage

Arthur Smith was to find that the Lord has an amazing way of turning disappointment into victory. While he was recovering from his wounds in a nursing home in Park Lane, he met Monica Crossley, who was acting as a ward maid.

      He invited her to his home, where for the first time she heard and saw at first hand the power of true Christianity. She was to say, years later, that at the end of a weekend in that home, like the blind man healed by Christ, ‘whereas I was blind, now I could see’.

      Arthur Smith and Monica Crossley were married in 1918. Their home was to be the source of lasting happiness, not only to their children but also to scores of others who visited it.

      Shortly before Smith’s death, a young Guards officer described the Smiths as the happiest married couple he knew and, in the closing years of their married life together, their contemporaries described them as ‘love-birds’!

      Arthur Smith was as strict a disciplinarian in his home as he was professionally, but his children loved both their parents and all of them inherited their Christian faith in due season.

      After the Armistice, Arthur Smith was sent to the Staff College at Camberley, as it was felt that he could continue to convalesce and study at the same time. As a student, he ran a weekly lunchtime Bible study group for his brother officers.

      Over two decades later a fellow student, who had by then become Commander-in-Chief, remarked that he regretted not having attended that Bible study group, as it would have taught him principles he would have valued later.

      From 1921 to 1924, Arthur Smith was Adjutant at Sandhurst. His briskness and efficiency were legendary and he achieved the high standards that were rightly demanded. It was during this tour that he compiled 100 days, a booklet of 100 Bible studies on selected subjects.

Promotion

The two decades between the wars were possibly the years in which Arthur Smith’s personal Christian influence was greatest. Many who came under his influence at Sandhurst and during the tours that followed (such as Commandant of the Guards Depot, Commanding Officer of the 2nd Battalion, Coldstream Guards, and Commander, 4th Guards Brigade) remained lifelong friends.

      Throughout his life, his loyalty to all with whom he came into contact was outstanding. Widows of brother officers killed in the First World War were visited regularly; relations in difficult circumstances were cared for; and charities generously supported. He was unusually far­seeing in his practical Christianity for a man of his time…

      From 1938 onwards, he held a number of key senior-staff appointments, over a period of four years. While commanding 4th Guards Brigade, Wavell had been his Divisional Commander and when Wavell took over Middle East Command, Arthur Smith was retained as his Chief of Staff … His relationship with Auchinleck was no less warm…

      The next two years were spent as General Officer Commanding London District, with as many as 250,000 men under command at one time. But in 1944 he was appointed Commander-in-Chief Persia and Iraq Command.

      The Chief of the Imperial General Staff was Alanbrooke and he asked to see Arthur Smith before he left. In his diary that night, Alanbrooke wrote: ‘Finally Arthur Smith to say goodbye before departure for Iraq and Persia Command. There is no doubt that he is a very fine man, entirely selfless and with only one thought — that of serving his country’.

Brigadier Ian Dobbie OBE

The author is a grandson of Lieutenant-General Sir William Dobbie and served in the Royal Engineers. This extract is taken, with permission, from The Fight of Faith — lives and testimonies from the battlefield, edited by Michael Claydon and Philip Bray, Panoplia Publishing (ISBN 98-0-9576089-0-0).

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